How Replacement Theory Moved From The Fringe To The Mainstream : The NPR Politics Podcast The suspected gunman in Saturday's shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. is alleged to have written a racist screed explaining his motivations. One of the topics discussed is "replacement theory," a talking point that has made its way to statements made by Republican lawmakers and Fox News hosts despite its past as a fringe idea in racist forums. Today, a look at what replacement theory is, how it became amplified & what implications that has on the political process.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political correspondent Mara Liasson and national security correspondent Odette Yousef.

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How Replacement Theory Moved From The Fringe To The Mainstream

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. It is 1:35 p.m. on Monday, May 16. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: Today we're going to talk about a mass shooting that happened Saturday at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., that left 10 people dead and three injured. The suspect in the shooting is alleged to have written a screed posted online where he espoused white supremacist views. Authorities have described the attack as racist and a hate crime.

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JOSEPH GRAMAGLIA: The evidence that we have uncovered so far makes no mistake that this is an absolute racist hate crime. It will be prosecuted as a hate crime. This is someone who has hate in their heart, soul and mind, and there is no mistake that that's the direction that this is going in.

KEITH: That's Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia. Eleven of the 14 who were shot were Black, and that isn't an accident. The gunman's attack took place in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I want to bring in NPR's Odette Yousef, who covers domestic extremism. Hey, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey there.

KEITH: Thank you for being with us. The Biden administration has been saying for a year now that the greatest threat to U.S. homeland security is violent extremism, driven by white supremacist ideology. And they've gotten a lot of pushback from Republicans on that, saying that isn't the biggest threat. Is what happened this weekend what the attorney general and homeland security secretary have been warning about?

YOUSEF: It's exactly what they've been warning about. And I would note, Tam, that this is a threat that was highlighted even before the Biden administration. You know, we saw during the Trump administration years that top officials from the FBI, the DOJ were testifying before Congress, highlighting the heightened threat that they were seeing from what they call racially or ethnically motivated, violent extremists. So this isn't even, you know, necessarily a political issue. This is just what the numbers have been showing over the years, that, you know, the number of attacks by people who are motivated by racial animus or ethnic animus has been far outstripping terrorist attacks by individuals for other reasons.

KEITH: This screed that the gunman allegedly wrote talks a lot about a racist ideology called replacement theory. Can you walk us through what that is and where it comes from?

YOUSEF: Yes. So the great replacement - you know, this is the term that has been used more recently, but it's a term that was coined about a decade ago. And it has been used for a conspiracy theory that has existed for many decades in white supremacist circles. You know, this is an idea that a cabal of powerful elites - they believe Jews - are controlling the U.S. government, they're controlling the U.S. banking system, the media, Hollywood and that they are intentionally and systematically replacing white Americans with people of color through permissive immigration policies or by promoting interracial marriage. This is an idea that went under different monikers in the past. You know, the neo-Nazi skinheads of the '80s and '90s, they called this ZOG theory; Zionist Occupied Government is what that stood for. It's been around for a very long time. But since it was given this term the great replacement, it's really unified white nationalists all over the globe. This perceived cabal - you know, they say that it's Jewish elite, but in Europe, it's long been Muslims that they perceive as the ones that are sort of pulling the strings. So depending on where you are, white nationalists have their own, different versions of this.

KEITH: And you said something on Morning Edition that hit me today. You were talking about Charlottesville and the chant that those tiki-torch-carrying guys were shouting.

YOUSEF: That's right. You know, they were, you know, marching on the University of Virginia campus chanting, you will not replace us and Jews will not replace us. And I think that's really the first time many Americans became aware that there was this conspiracy theory out there.

LIASSON: And that was the very thing that Joe Biden has said inspired him to run for president - the torch-carrying mob chanting, Jews will not replace us. That's why he said he thought the election was a battle for the soul of America.

KEITH: Mara, I want to talk to you about a different version of this or an evolution of the idea of replacement that moves from neo-Nazis and KKK types to a Republican talking point. It's not as overt as what Odette describes, but Tucker Carlson from Fox News and others have been talking about, not a white replacement theory, but about political replacement.

LIASSON: Look; I think it's pretty overt. The political replacement is that somehow dark-skinned immigrants - many of them illegal, this theory goes - are going to replace white voters. Now, illegal immigrants can't vote in America, but violent white resistance to demographic change, integration, civil rights has a very long history in America. And some of this is simple demographics. We are on the way to being a majority minority country. And the genius of America has always been that it absorbs all sorts of people from all over the world from all sorts of backgrounds and races and religions and unites them under a set of values. Well, that's being strained to the breaking point right now. And there's tremendous resistance, not just on the fringes - neo-Nazis, KKK. This is something that now has a purchase, not just on the fringe, but among the very loudest voices of the Republican Party.

KEITH: Something that's gotten a lot of attention is a campaign ad that Elise Stefanik's campaign committee - she is the New York Republican No. 3 in the House Republicans. Her campaign committee ran an ad last fall online that said, quote, "Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet - a permanent election insurrection. Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington." Now, her adviser says she is absolutely sickened by anyone saying that she would say something racist, that she has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement, that she just opposes amnesty. But the line is pretty blurry.

LIASSON: The line is very blurry. Look; when a group is moving from being a majority to a minority, that's always a source of conflict. And the big message to white conservative voters from many parts of the Republican Party is, they want to take your power away; they want to take Western civilization away; they want to take your values away, your religion away, what you want to teach your kids away. And, you know, that finds a lot of purchase on the fringe from people who have tremendous access to guns. We haven't even talked about gun violence, but, you know, those two things together, white supremacy and gun violence, are a really toxic mix - deadly mix.

YOUSEF: And I just want to add here that even though, you know, we're talking more in terms of sort of political replacement among some on the right, you know, there have been members of Congress who have been very explicit, actually, about racial replacement. You know, former Iowa Rep. Steve King back in 2017 was tweeting, you know, we can't restore civilization with somebody else's babies. You know, this subtext has always been there.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on what happened in Buffalo and what it means for American politics.

And we're back. And, Odette, we've talked a little bit about how replacement started out on the fringes, but that at least elements of it have moved into the mainstream. And I'm wondering if you could sort of both outline how that has happened, but also what is the consequence of that happening?

YOUSEF: Yeah. So, you know, we've already talked a little bit about Charlottesville, which I think can't be overstated the degree to which that brought some of these talking points out into sort of the wider American discourse just for awareness purposes. And I'll also note that that year that that happened, 2017, was the year that Tucker Carlson got his show on Fox News. You know, the kind of rhetoric that he was sort of initially sharing on his show wasn't talking necessarily about racial replacement, but rather voter replacement, you know, as Mara was talking about earlier. And this is something that we see time and time again through sort of the extremist playbook is an iteration of the language and the packaging of conspiracy theories so that they can be a little bit less repugnant to a wider audience. So, you know, we went from this place where it was on these sort of fringe, dark websites, and then they start making their way to sites like Breitbart. And then, you know, it gets picked up on, you know, Fox cable news shows. And then we suddenly have, you know, some of our Republican officials using some of this language around voter replacement and so on. You know, this also coincided with just sort of this explosion that we've seen in unmoderated activity on social media platforms. And so a lot of this language gets shared on Facebook and Twitter, now Telegram, as these sort of jokey memes. And people don't necessarily keep track, I guess, of how numbed they become to jokes that may dehumanize other people. But that is also a part of the playbook here to sort of repackage some of these messages in ways that actually kind of seem like you're joining an inside joke. And that's been particularly appealing to young people who've gotten radicalized.

KEITH: I want to talk about the alleged shooter just quickly. Do you have a sense of how he was radicalized, if you will? Where did he consume this and then become driven by it?

YOUSEF: You know, it's really interesting because, you know, there's this, as we mentioned, 180-page document that's attributed to this alleged shooter in which he kind of self-reports his radicalization process. And he wasn't radicalized by any of these sort of mainstream avenues that we've been discussing. He was back on - you know, he was on 4chan. He was on these sort of websites where these ideas kind of first were gaining currency within the alt-right back in 2017. So, you know, there is this question of, you know - we're talking about the stuff getting mainstreamed on conservative media and so on. In this particular case, you know, he might have gotten radicalized anyway.

LIASSON: Well, Odette, doesn't he specifically mention the New Zealand shooter who shot up all those mosques? Doesn't he talk about him by name?

YOUSEF: He does, yeah. He mentions the Christchurch shooting as sort of the tipping point that prompted him to start actually planning a violent attack.

KEITH: So, Odette, I kind of want to end where we started, which is that, you know, the Biden administration has been saying that this is a big national security problem. We have talked about the numbers. Is there a way out of this violence?

YOUSEF: You know, I don't think the way out is going to be simply through a national security approach. You know, the Biden administration has sort of relabeled the old program that they used for countering violent extremism. You know, they've slapped a new label on it. You know, they're now trying to focus on, you know, helping to prevent this kind of violence that we saw over the weekend. But the truth is that as long as people are, you know, able to access and radicalize themselves online, to draw inspiration from other similar acts in other countries, you know, we're going to continue to see this kind of violence. And the part of the discussion that's been missing, in my view, is why was this person susceptible to just this conspiracy theory in the first place? I mean, reading the document, I was just amazed at the lack of foundation that this individual had in factual history about slavery and race and the continued legacy of systemic and institutional racism in this country. And I think that what we're seeing is young people are looking for answers to questions around why we live in a segregated and inequitable society. And they're going to these websites online, and they're finding people that are offering explanations for it. And so we're not addressing the education aspect of this, which I think is really critical to sort of helping people become resilient against adopting these really, you know, dangerous views.

KEITH: Odette Yousef, thank you so much for joining us.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

KEITH: All right. That is a wrap for today. We will be back tomorrow. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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